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Bret Stephens and The Baby Boomer Ideology

May 9, 2012

I’m happy to see that so many young Americans have chimed in to respond to Bret Stephens’ nasty op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal today. Stephens, normally a sharp-sighted foreign policy commentator for the Journal, has written an op-ed titled ‘To the Class of 2012′, framed as the kind of Commencement Address that Stephens would like to give if he had the chance. His message is unambiguous: ‘Tone down your egos, shape up your minds.’ Too many college graduates these days, he stresses, are over-entitled and don’t learn anything in college, much less the conceptual frameworks they’ll need in the future to master facts.

He cites as an example an interview he had with a graduate of a big-time Ivy League school once, where the conversations veered towards the modern history of the Middle East. They started to mention the 1956 Suez Crisis, a complicated diplomatic episode involving France and the UK withdrawing from Egypt after Gamel Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, after the United States (and the USSR) made clear they would not support major military action against Nasser. Forget any interpretations of the event, however: the Ivy League graduate who had majored in Middle Eastern Studies didn’t even know who the President of the United States was at the time of the crisis. It’s this kind of young person, Stephens underlines – cocky, ignorant, and without any marketable skills – that is why the country is going down the drain.

Commencement addresses are an interesting, and it seems to me uniquely American rhetorical format. Most of the time, they’re vapid. College seniors get up and issue platitudes that they’re unqualified to dispense. Other times, however, you get some nice piecemeal gems of wisdom, like these from Charles Wheelan. I particularly liked this one, for example:

Performing animals do tricks because their trainers throw them peanuts or small fish for doing so. You should aspire to do better. You will be a friend, a parent, a coach, an employee—and so on. But only in your job will you be explicitly evaluated and rewarded for your performance. Don’t let your life decisions be distorted by the fact that your boss is the only one tossing you peanuts. If you leave a work task undone in order to meet a friend for dinner, then you are “shirking” your work. But it’s also true that if you cancel dinner to finish your work, then you are shirking your friendship. That’s just not how we usually think of it.

Still at other times, Commencement addresses capture the zeitgeist of a moment, or distill an idiosyncratic ideology or outlook: just think of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at Harvard in 1978. Stephens’ piece perfectly falls into this tradition; more specifically, it nicely encapsulates some of what I would call the Baby Boomer Ideology. I have partly sketched out the traces of this ideology before in an essay on Occupy Wall Street, but let’s go over it again. First, according to the Baby Boomer Ideology (so called because it is almost universally held by American Baby Boomers talking about their ungrateful children), Generation Y (broadly, people born from 1980-1989) is incredibly lazy, the most entitled generation in American history. They expect to live upper-middle class lifestyles immediately out of college without having done any work. They are both ignorant (they don’t know any facts) as well as stupid (they don’t have the framework to fit any new facts into their brains). They demand to be given actual paying jobs rather than unpaid internships in spite of the fact of said ignorance and stupidity, but none of them can be hired because they are too entitled, demand to be treated as real employees and because they don’t have any work experience. Hence the sadly common experience of many people in my generation: you can’t get a job because you don’t have work experience, but you can’t get work experience if you’re not already employed.

But second, according to the Baby Boomer Ideology, Generation Y is also the most self-absorbed and robotic generation in history. We don’t live enough, they tell us. Even Wheelan’s otherwise-wonderful piece emphasizes this. We’re too caught up into the race of getting more, and better, awards and fellowships attached to our bellies like Sneetches love stars. There’s no critical thinking in our generation. (Interesting here is the constant complaint about liberal arts majors, when they account for less than 10 percent of American college graduates – the majority of undergraduate degrees are in business.) When not distracted by the race for more prestige or the next soccer practice to be ferried off to, we’re caught up in our own lives on social media platforms. In other words, we don’t live enough, and we’re too career-driven (because we’re either updating our Facebook status or because we’ve found a way to pre-professionalize every aspect of social life) … but at the same time we’re lazy and not focused enough on acquiring skills for the real world.

Unmentioned in much of the Baby Boomer Ideology analysis, needless to say, goes the story of the securitization of the American economy (mortgages and student loans), the exploding cost of higher education, the collapse of public funding for said higher education, the significant unfunded tax cuts and Medicare expansions of the Bush Administration, the proliferation of unpaid internships as a de facto stepping stone into the American workforce, and the deregulation of financial markets that has combined to create the worst employment landscape for young Americans since the 1930s. (Guess which Generation’s Presidents and Congressmen enacted much of this legislative agenda?)

Probe deeper into Stephens’ article and you find some of the additional tensions to the Boomer Ideology. Stephens himself is one of many media commentators to attack the 3% of American college graduates who major in the liberal arts, in spite of the fact that Stephens got such an education himself (bachelor’s at the University of Chicago followed by graduate work at the London School of Economics) followed immediately by a first job (not an internship) at the Wall Street Journal – the only institution that has employed him during his entire career save for a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post. This is a fine resumé, but not quite one that walks the walk if the point is to insist to people that they should all become engineers.

More than that, however, the one Millenial that Stephens admires in the piece doesn’t even conform to the own guidelines he admonishes the Class of 2012 for lacking.

A couple of years ago I hired a summer intern from West Point. She came to the office directly from weeks of field exercises in which she kept a bulletproof vest on at all times, even while sleeping. She writes brilliantly and is as self-effacing as she is accomplished. Now she’s in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban.

The fact that this young intern of Stephens’ (how did she get the job? was it an open application process?) performed so well in field exercises while wearing a bulletproof vest is admirable; I just don’t see what it has to do with the specific tasks of researching information on Middle Eastern politics that would have come with being Stephens’ assistant. And it’s true that the qualities of dealing with adversity, giving orders to subordinates, and simply surviving in combat situations like those in Afghanistan could be helpful at times in civilian employment. But rather than encouraging the development of these traits, Stephens is simply telling graduates that ‘most of you don’t even know how badly you stink.’ Right. And with all due respect to this young veteran, one questions whether her experience is that relevant to most non-uniformed graduating seniors, who do not have the obligation (and security, of a kind) of a military career ahead of them. (This is addition to the fact that many young veterans are actually more likely to be unemployed than those who didn’t serve in the US armed forces.)

To end on a positive note, and to go beyond some of the negativity that pervades Stephens’ column. The thing I find most depressing about the Boomer Ideology and Stephens’ op-ed is how relentlessly negative and aggressive it is towards younger Americans. While elders chastising their young for foolishness is probably as old as time itself, there’s a rich tradition of Americans finding ways to provide reflection and advice that’s sober and tough while also being deeply inspiring: think of Steve Jobs’ Commencement address at Stanford from 2005. Even though Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of the Apple visionary tells us that Jobs could be an incredibly critical manager, an ungrateful husband, and frankly unpleasant to be around, his speech reminds us of why he remains respected, even worshipped, as brilliant:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.

In contrast to this, all the Boomer Ideology has to offer us is the refrain: you’re spoiled and lazy. Stop complaining. Get to work. All of which is true, and something that Jobs himself did throughout his career. But what the Ideology misses is that without linking this Puritanical work ethic, which has a rich American tradition behind it, with the flexibility and inventiveness another part of our tradition embraces, leads to drudgery.

But what about the competition? This is another cherished theme of the Boomer Ideology: these Millennials, they’re so over-entitled and lazy that they are going to have their lunches eaten by ambitious and hungrier Chinese and Indian workers. Some of this might be true, although again I wonder how likely it is that The Jerusalem Post or the United States Army (to take Stephens’ intern) is going to hire a Chinese writer or lieutenant to take those jobs. But let’s take the idea of relentless global competition as a fact. Look back to how previous generations of Americans reacted to these kinds of challenges, to George C. Marshall’s Harvard Commencement speech outlining the Marshall Plan or then-Senator John F. Kennedy outlining what would become the Peace Corps:

How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.

While the value and relevance of the Peace Corps in particular has been challenged, what jumps out to me when I look at these speeches to younger Americans from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s is the extent to which they avoid any language of generational warfare. The message is never ‘Your generation has to compete with the Soviets, so now you’re really screwed, you ungrateful you-know-whats.’ Rather, real American leaders like Marshall and Kennedy gave speeches that constantly us the word ‘we’ or the phrase ‘these United States of America’. They think in terms of collectives, not generations. The emphasis is on how the nation could come together to overcome challenges, not on attacking younger Americans in a condescending exercise of generational narcissism.

We have a long way to go as a country to overcome this kind of thinking.

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2 Comments
  1. Peter permalink

    It would appear that during the twilight of their lives, all the uncool “silent majority” baby boomers have become the voice of that generation. Quite the reversal from 1968! I have no doubt that the more reactionarily inclined section of Gen Y will be upbraiding their successors along similar lines in a few decades. No doubt the fear engendered by a severe economic downturn combined with the vast differences in the racial composition of American age cohorts contribute to the vitriol.

  2. Great article, great points!

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